Friday, 25 May 2007


All manner of tangential factors can affect one's enjoyment of a piece of theatre. The more honest critics every so often admit that having a headache or having had to run for the bus (or rather, their expenses-paid cab), does have an impact. Although most of them continue pretending it doesn't.

As a director there's nothing one can really do about Michael Billington's hangover short of cutting off his head, but there are plenty of environmental factors of which one can take an almost fascistic level of control. That's exactly what I'm about to advocate.

At the start of the show, the audience need to be in a receptive mood, and theatregoers, by and large, are. (This is one of the many unexamined ways in which critics's experiences are separate from ordinary theatregoers. I'm not talking about the free wine, but the fact that they generally arrive alone and spend an awful lot of time with their own thoughts. This makes it very easy to resent something that pulls you out of your reverie.) But how do we ensure they're receptive?

The event starts when people enter the space in which it's going to take place, and the pre-state should be used as unscrupulously as possible in order to render the audience receptive. Jaunty, energetic music is the first port of call. It should preferably have some sort of link with the show, but most important is that it's jaunty, energetic, and pretty loud. Loud enough for the audience to have to make a very slight effort to talk to one another, jaunty enough for them to take from it a sense of fun. If there are any laughs in the first few minutes of your show (and there really ought to be, if you ask me, but more on that some other time), they'll be louder as a result of the audience talking over the music for a couple of minutes.

And the lighting is important too, although I haven't quite figured out the optimum yet. Too bright is no good because that completely loses the sense of event, of entering a different space. There should be something exciting about entering a theatre and if everything is brightly lit it's rather harder to effect that. But too dark is no good because it overeggs that sense.

This is of course all very different if you're trying to create an atmosphere. You often see shows that have a churchy feel upon entering the auditorium, seemingly designed to provoke reverence. For me, what this does is make the audience feel awkward, feel as though they don't know how to behave. I want an audience to feel welcome in my theatre, like this is a party to which they're invited.

And despite taking very careful control of the mood of the room before the show has even started, things can still go wrong. Last night I allowed the show to start five minutes late while we waited for VIP audience members to turn up. In the meantime the rest of the audience were in their seats patiently waiting for kickoff. John and I valiantly entertained them with our loud jaunty music, but it became pretty clear pretty quickly that we were now nothing more than filler. Before long there was a strong sense of "so what the hell are we waiting for?" pervading the room. When the geriatric VIPs finally turned up they stumbled and fell at some length to their seats, prolonging the agony yet further.

The opening sequence of the show relies quite heavily on the high energy pre-state because it is slow and sombre and its effect comes in large part by contrast. The pre-state having palled, the opening dragged and it was uphill from there to get the audience on board. They managed it, but by god it was a struggle. (Incidentally this is in direct parallel with the bit in yesterday's post about the sequence before the dragon-fight in HP4.) The lesson: don't allow anyone else to control how your show starts. First impressions count.

And don't let in any fucking latecomers. I was once in a production of Howard Barker's Claw in which I opened the second half with a ten-minute monologue. As I started it I could see that audience numbers were considerably down on the first half. Two minutes in, the doors opened and fifty or so people traipsed back in from the bar. This is an extreme example, but if you let one in, you let them all in. The exception to this, as always, comes from Can of Worms. If you're doing clown, latecomers, like every other fuckup, police siren and sudden blast of music from the next auditorium along, are a gift and part of the pleasure comes from seeing the performers take control of things that plainly originated beyond that sphere of control.

This all sounds terribly cynical. "You're trying to manipulate your audience." Yes, I am. It's my job to have an effect on my audience, and the more I'm in control of that effect, the better I'm doing my job. It's no good making a great show and then pissing it away because everyone's in the wrong mood when it starts: one critic with a headache is tolerable, a roomfull of headaches is a problem. To take control is also to take responsbility.


alexf said...

But... you're trying to manipulate your audience...

this may sound nitpicky, but having an effect isn't the same thing as manipulating. (And even manipulation has many different flavours - if you don't believe me, go see a masseur.)

my point, i guess, is that the contract between an audience and a performance can take many different forms, and, yes, you're in a position to dictate the terms, but the relationship manipulator/manipulated is only one possibility.

alexf said...

(hope the tour's going well btw)

danbye said...

Yeah, I guess that's fair comment. I suppose that, if you imagine a continuum with "totally manipulative" at one end and "doing something for effect but with no control whatever over what that effect might be" at the other (someone come up with a snappier way of putting this?), then:

a) there'll be a fair bit of overlap in the middle.
b) any piece of theatre that knows what it's doing will likely be somewhere in that middle bit, or further off to the manipulative end.

For sure you can go too far: I give you Andrew Lloyd Webber. But the problem there is not so much that it's manipulative as that, as an audience member, I don't consent to being manipulated by it. Instead, I resent it. A piece of theatre that wins my trust in one way or another, I will allow to do to me just about anything.

I agree that the audience-performance contract is not fixed, but at its root, among other things, is: I will give you my attention, if you do something to me. I will withdraw my attention if you don't do enough to hold it or do something to me I don't like.

danbye said...

(and yeah, the tour's going very nicely thanks. In fact, I'm just about to write another abstruse blog post glancing off the subject.

alexf said...

I'm not sure I would reduce it to a linear continuum (and I think your model places you a little too close to webber for comfort;) but yeah.

It's nice to read someone conceiving of the theatrical experience as a total experience. I don't think you give your audience enough credit, though. Perhaps I'm unusually attentive, but the experience of entering the space is superexciting. You're seeing and experiencing things that were once hidden from you. What the space feels like is the evening's first reveal. As such I really notice the music, or the silence, and the lights, and the set, and the way the audience file in, and who is in the audience. I'm already experiencing your choices, and making judgements, concious or unconcious, about them.

ps - i also have a new blog (, later today hopefully I'll have something up about why Pirates of the Caribean 3 is the most subversive film of the decade.

danbye said...

As always happens with online discussions, I've kind of lost sight of where (if anywhere) our views stop coinciding. Why am I giving the audience insufficient credit if I assume they'll be adversely affected by a pre-state that isn't up to scratch? Surely I'm crediting them with the sensitivity to notice that if the little things aren't good enough, they quite rightly won't enjoy the show?

Certainly, I argue in the blog that they don't necessarily notice those things at a conscious level (whereas you do notice them at that level because yes, you are an especially attentive audience member, not to mention one with a professional interest in theatremaking). But if the audience were totally oblivious to these things at every level, then they wouldn't be worth doing, would they? You don't need to know how a trick is done to see what effect it has on the girl in the wooden box.

alexf said...

sorry, yes, you're right of course, I'm getting nitpicky and blowing up what differences there are, if any. It feels to me like you view the audience is of a passive recipient of the director's box of pre-show tricks (I know this is reductive, gaaah, waht am i trying to say? perhaps that your conception seems to be one in which the audience are acted upon? would that be fair? I think it's a perfectly reasonable and valid conception of the audience, but it's not necessarily on that I'd share...) I guess I'm trying to say that an audience enters a space in a state of hyper-attentiveness, not just sensitivity. I know that I might understand how you're doing things that an average punter might not, but everyone is capable of going, ooh, that's that song, that makes me feel in that way, and i like it/don't like it, and pingpingping they're somewhere else entirely and they are also acutely aware that someone has chosen to use that music, and that consequently, they know that the performance has effectively started.


danbye said...

Acted on, yes, but not passively allowing that to happen but - when it's working - actively engaged in what's happening.

And yes to the last part.